Iraqi Media 14 Years after the Invasion: Partisan, Sectarian, and Factional

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Iraqi Media 14 Years after the Invasion: Partisan, Sectarian, and Factional

Oday Hatem

14 years after the fall of Saddam’s regime, today Iraqi media pluralism reflects the partisan scene of ethnic and sectarian cleavages. Even though the situation is better than most countries in the region, the country still lacks basic media freedoms such as the freedom of access to information and the ability to publish opinions without fear of reprisal or intervention. Most media outlets in the country are little more than advertising or propaganda pieces in support of particular political parties or individuals. Whereas under the previous regime, Iraqi media lauded one person and one party only, today the media collectively promote the agendas of a variety of political parties and individuals. On balance, however, the Iraqi media still shuns its primary responsibility of transmitting objective news and the truth to the public. Iraq lacks a robust and influential independent media sector. Most independent media .projects collapse due to lack of funding, and the few independent media outlets that do exist are weak

After 2003, Iraqi media took advantage of available space to launch dozens of new newspapers, magazines, television channels, and radio stations. However, it is crucial to understand that this space was due primarily to the chaos that swept the country during the first few year of occupation and the preoccupation of successive governments, political parties, and the public with increasing violence. Successive governments did little to encroach upon press freedom until late 2008. Limited exceptions included brief closings of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabia, and Al-Sharqiya satellite channels under the pretext of inciting violence and sectarianism. However, this press flowering during the early years of occupation did not spring from the political elite’s belief in freedom of the press itself. In early 2009, journalists began facing systematic government violations of press freedoms. These included arrests, assaults, strict limits and procedures restricting press coverage, and barring journalists from practicing their work. Journalists needed the approval of the security forces before covering any substantive activities and events.

The government uses a variety of methods to control the news. The official Commission of Media and Communications (CMC) monitors the editorial policy of media outlets and collects information about journalists and their coverage. The CMC threatens media outlets with closure and withdrawal of their licenses if they surpass certain red lines while criticizing the government. The state also leverages professional organizations to issue false testimonies about their peers in return for financial payments and other rewards. This method of bribery not only punishes dissenting voices but has caused those journalists that slander others for being critical of the government to compromise their principles on constitutionally enshrined press rights.

Iraq’s Politicized Media

         

Iraq suffers from a politicized media that can be divided into four categories.

1)      State Media: Media outlets that are controlled directly or indirectly by the executive authorities, even though this is unconstitutional.

         Media controlled by the office of the prime minister, such as Iraqi Media Net that owns three television stations and the widely read Al-Sabah newspaper and Al-Shabakah magazine. Their funding comes from the federal budget. In theory, Parliament supervises the expenditures and editorial policies are set by editors and independent boards of directors, with no interference from legislative or executive authorities. However, ever since the United States transferred powers to the government headed by Ayyad Alawi in July 2004 these outlets have effectively transformed into the personal property of the prime minister’s office, from which they take their editorial cues.

         Media controlled by government ministries, such as Al-Hadara satellite channel under the Ministry of Culture and al-Taalim Channel under the Ministry of Higher Education. These channels are used to promote the agenda of particular ministers.

         Media controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government or provincial governments across Iraq, including satellite channels, land-based TV channels, newspapers, magazines, and radio stations. These outlets are publicly funded and promote government policies and officials. They do not communicate objective facts and news to the public. This violates Iraq’s constitution, which forbids federal, regional, or provincial governments from owning or controlling any media outlets. Constitutionally, these administrations should voice their perspectives through press conferences and official spokespersons.

2)      Partisan Media: All major political parties in Iraq own media outlets that ensure editorial policies align with partisan agendas.

3)      Media Financed by Neighboring States: Some media outlets that broadcast or publish from Iraq derive their funding and editorial influence from neighboring states interested in carving out influence in the country. These outlets sometimes espouse extremist or polarizing ideologies.

4)      Sectarian Religious Media: Some satellite channels, radio stations, and newspapers receive funding from religious leaders (mostly Shiite marjas and Sunni organizations). These media outlets are the most dangerous and often stir sectarian polarization and encourage religious extremism.

Independent Media Faces Tough Environment

 

            Independent media outlets produced by independent journalists or media companies number less than five newspapers and radio stations. Most independent ventures have failed for lack of sustainable funding and due to financial losses. Therefore, independent publishers have faced a stark choice: either to close the paper and release all staff; or to sell the paper to a political party or other influential figure with the resulting loss of independence. There are four primary reasons for the near-total lack of independent media in Iraq.

1)      The absence of a diversified advertisement market. Iraq still exhibits a quasi-socialist and planned centralized economy. Most advertisements come from government institutions, whose leaderships are distributed between Iraq’s major political parties. Therefore, ministers and other government officials at the federal and provincial level choose to dole out official advertisements to outlets affiliated with their political parties.

2)      The absence of financial support from Western governments or international organizations. Most financial support has targeted partisan satellite TV stations.

3)      Weak domestic and foreign direct investment. Iraq lacks this stimulus to diversify its advertisement market.

4)      High cost of production. In order to compete with partisan and government-supported publications—which are distributed for free or for a symbolic fee of around 250 Iraqi Dinars ($0.21)—independent newspapers and magazines must sell their products for less than 500 ID. This covers less than five percent of production costs.

Legislative Challenges to Media Freedom

The state’s systematic legislative campaign to restrict constitutionally guaranteed freedoms represents the greatest danger to media freedom in Iraq. These efforts include the passage of the Journalist Rights Law in August 2012 and the preparation of seven other draft laws that restrict the press. This campaign indicates partisan elites’ desire to eviscerate constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Iraq in order to control the flow of information and re-create a state-controlled media sector. The majority of political blocs that control parliament and state institutions exhibit authoritarian ideological backgrounds that oppose fundamental freedoms, whether of the Islamist or secular-nationalist variety. It is worth delving into some detail to illustrate exactly how many articles in these laws use qualifiers to negate positive language regarding media freedoms.

The law contains at least five problematic articles. Article 4 states, “The journalist has the right to access and publish information, news, data, and statistics not classified by the government and within the boundaries of law.” These two qualifications strip the article of guaranteeing any new rights or opportunities for journalists. “Within the boundaries of law” clearly includes those laws still on the books from Saddam’s era, all of which deny media freedom. The article clearly re-affirms the primacy of information secrecy and restricts journalism in the name of past laws. Article 5 states, “The journalist has the right to comment and express his/her views regardless of differences in opinion, within the boundaries of the law.” This article uses a similar qualifier to re-affirm existing legislation restricting press freedom. Article 6 states, “The journalist has the right to access government reports and information and relevant authorities must facilitate this access, unless uncovering this information would harm the public order or not respect the law.” Once again, this article enshrines previous regime restrictions. It can also be invoked to prevent the distribution of information regarding financial or administrative corruption, and to hold journalists accountable for such actions under the criminal defamation clauses of the old penal code. Article 7 states, “It is not allowed to target or confiscate journalists’ equipment, except when allowed by law.” This reactivates old laws that permit official confiscation of press equipment. Finally, Article 8 states, “It is not allowed to question a journalist about his/her views or the information he/she publishes unless it violates the law.” This article provides no protection whatsoever.

Independent journalism is outlawed according the following legislation from Iraq’s dictatorial era: Iraqi Penal Code 111 of 1969, Publications Law 206 of 1968, Ministry of Information Law of 2001, Censorship of Classified Material and Cinema Law 64 of 1973, Press Association Law of 1969 (a law about press work and not the bylaws of the press association). Coalition occupation authorities also contributed to the legislative legacy restricting press freedoms. Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 14 from 2003 concerns prohibited media coverage and grants the prime minister the powers to close any media outlet, confiscate equipment and finances, and imprison journalists. This body of inherited laws allows the state to nationalize private media outlets because this legal architecture does not permit private media and specifically states that all media must be owned by the state. For these reasons, the PFAA, hundreds of journalists, and dozens of Iraqi and international civil society organizations—in particular the Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative—see the Journalist Rights Law as a major threat to press freedom and a step towards the resurrection of a state-controlled media sector.

Other Problematic Draft Laws

Law on the Freedom of Expression of Opinion, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration

This draft law received its first and second readings in parliament. SDPFI considers this legislation another attempt to constrain freedom of expression, freedom of information, the right of assembly, and the right of peaceful demonstration. This law requires prior approval, not just prior notification, of the state for any demonstration. The law limits freedom of expression contradicting constitutional guarantees and international norms. Article 38 of the Iraqi Constitution does not permit any legislation restricting the media’s role or freedom of expression: “The state guarantees the following, in that they don’t prejudice public order and morality: First, freedom of expression by all means; second, freedom of the press, printing, advertising, media, and publishing; and third, freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, which is to be regulated by law.” Therefore, the constitution does not call for issuing laws regulating freedom of expression and press freedoms, but only for a law regulating peaceful demonstrations.

Cybercrimes Law

In 2013, PFAA undertook an advocacy campaign along with other Iraqi and international civil society organizations that caused the parliament to shelve a problematic draft of the Cybercrimes Law. PFAA conducted an analysis of 31 articles that stipulated punitive measures ranging from life imprisonment to exorbitant fines. Although the bill was shelved by parliament, since the bill was introduced by the executive authorities, they can reintroduce it at any time. If parliament was serious about rejecting the bill and amending it according to constitutional guarantees and Iraq’s international commitments regarding freedom of expression, it would send the draft back to Iraq’s State Shura Council, which is responsible for reviewing all draft legislation to ensure conformity with Iraqi law.

Much of the proposed bill contains anti-constitutional elements. The second article of the constitution stipulates, “No law may be enacted that contradicts the principles of democracy,” as based on international agreements and norms, and that “no law may be enacted that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this Constitution.” These rights clearly include freedoms of expression, press, and media, as found in Article 38; and freedoms of thought, conscience, and belief, as found in Article 42. In sum, Article 46 states, “Restricting or limiting the practice of any of the rights or liberties stipulated in this Constitution is prohibited, except by a law or on the basis of a law, and insofar as that limitation or restriction does not violate the essence of the right or freedom.” PFAA notes that the draft Cybercrimes Law imposes harsh punishments in Articles 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, 15, and 19.

            In addition, the following draft laws are in need of revision to respect constitutionally guaranteed freedoms: Communications and Information Law, Iraqi Media Commission Law, Communications and Media Commission Law, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology Law, and National Media Center Law.

Judicial Obstacles to Press Freedom

The judiciary assists executive and legislative authorities in their efforts to control the media landscape and restrict freedom of expression in Iraq. The Iraqi judiciary is still not qualified to adjudicate in matters related to public and private freedoms and human rights. Judges do not possess sufficient expertise in these matters and are in any case subject to undue influence by executive authorities. The judiciary has issued many orders that violate Iraqi law and the constitution, such as rejecting the lawsuit brought to court by “PFAA” in July 2011 to overturn Articles 81, 82, 83, and 84 of the Publishing Crimes Law that blatantly contradict articles 38 and 46 of the Iraqi constitution. The Federal Supreme Court also rejected SDPFI’s lawsuit arguing the Journalist Rights Law’s self-evident violation of Articles 13, 14, 38, 42, and 46 of the constitution. A number of factors contribute to this environment, including:

         The distribution of judicial posts since 2003 has been based on the principle of ethnic, sectarian, and partisan quotas; and not based on merit.

         Most judges still believe or act as if the judiciary is part of, and subject to, the executive branch, and not an independent institution. The judiciary is not accustomed to taking any decision against the will of the executive branch.

         The government has created a new generation of judges through introducing legislation that allows any lawyer or person working in the judicial sector for over three years to become a judge as long as he or she is not over 40 years old. The result has been the appointment of many young followers of ruling political parties who are not very experienced in law and adjudication to prominent positions in the judiciary.

         The government has retained files condemning some senior judges for either former membership in the outlawed Baath Party or involvement in bribes. The government continues to blackmail these individuals into towing the government line in judicial matters.

Media Intimidation and Violence

            Journalists risk their own lives and that of their families every day in the face of constant threats from a variety of sources. Many have been targeted for uncovering facts relating to the involvement of political leaders in administrative or financial corruption; for covering stories of violence and terror related to religious leaders or extremist groups; and for investigating cases of human trafficking and sex slavery. More than 300 journalists have been killed in Iraq since 2003. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Iraqi is the worst country in the world in criminal impunity for media-related offenses. Since 2003, Iraqi authorities have not charged a single person with killing a journalist. The authorities’ failure to bring these killers to justice has encouraged ongoing violence against media professionals. Seven parties are responsible for targeting or threatening media workers in Iraq: Al-Qaeda; other armed Sunni groups; remnants of the dissolved Baath Party and related armed groups; Shiite militias; political parties; government and official security forces; and tribal sheikhs and leaders.

Recommendations for Moving Forward

1)      International and Iraqi organizations must redouble efforts to pressure the government and political parties to respect press freedoms. This can be done through professional monitoring, reporting, and analyzing instances of violations of media freedoms and freedom of expression.

2)      Activate the roles of the UN Mission in Iraq and other international organizations to amplify their voice and to advocate on issues relating to press freedoms, freedom of expression, and human rights.

3)      Develop the skills of Iraqi journalists, activists, and civil society organizations to enable them to confront legislative challenges to press freedoms and other rights more effectively. This should include their exposure to civil society experts, successful models of advocacy, and examples of legal frameworks in other countries.

4)      Train lawyers, judges, and others working in the judicial sector on how to approach cases of press freedom violations in order to ensure a judiciary respectful of freedoms and a body of lawyers adept at litigation in this area.

5)      Provide financial support to civil society organizations working on free media issues as well as to independent media outlets in order to ensure their sustainability.

6)      Strengthen international and regional solidarity initiatives with media professionals, activists, and other defenders of press freedoms in Iraq by adopting clear and public positions on individual instances of violations, including in cases of imprisonment, assassination attempts, and smear campaigns against media professionals

 

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